In 1896, when the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that
separate public facilities did not violate the constitution, segregated
schools became sanctioned by law. The "separate but equal"
doctrine established by the Court's ruling meant that as long as they
were equal, separate facilities for blacks and whites were legal. However,
separate did not guarantee equal, and across the country public facilities
for African Americans were inferior to those for whites.
In the 1940s, Clarendon County, South Carolina illustrated the disparities
between black and white schools in the South. The county spent four
times more money on white schools than on black schools. As a result of
inadequate funding, the black schools in the county were dilapidated and
overcrowded and had fewer resources than white schools. For example,
white students had new text books while black students had used text
books and black teachers were paid less than white teachers. The 2,000
white students in the county rode buses, while the 6,000 black students
had no buses and frequently walked several miles to school.
Harry and Eliza Briggs were black parents in Clarendon County who wanted
better conditions and equal education for their children. Encouraged by
their minister, the Reverend Joseph Armstrong De Laine, the Briggs and
fellow parent Levi Pearson petitioned county officials for buses. The
petition was denied, but the parents persisted. By 1950, with the support
of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
and attorney Thurgood Marshall, the Briggs were among 20 plaintiffs in
Briggs v. Elliott who sued the school board in an effort to
On May 28, 1951, a federal three-judge
panel ruled that black schools were unequal to white schools. The split
court ordered the schools "equaled," but ultimately upheld the
constitutionality of the "separate but equal" doctrine. Judge
J. Waites Waring wrote a 28-page dissenting opinion, suggesting that
segregated schools were inherently unequal.
appealed to the Supreme Court. Briggs v. Elliott and four other
cases combined to form the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of
Education, in which the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial
segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, overturning the
"separate but equal" doctrine.
While the Briggs'
actions may seem reasonable today, in a segregated society they were
considered radical and provocative. Harry Briggs, a Navy veteran, lost
his job as a gas station attendant. Eliza Briggs, a domestic worker in
a local motel, was fired. De Laine's house was burned to the ground,
and he and his two sisters were fired from their jobs. The Briggs and
others involved in the case were harassed, denied credit, refused service
in local stores, and eventually forced to move out of the state.
According to the law, schools were supposed to be "separate but equal." Were they? Explain.
What was the purpose of the petition that Mr. and Mrs. Briggs and other parents in Clarendon County signed?
All 22 parents who signed the petition lost their jobs. Why would they have been willing to make this sacrifice?